Tackling disadvantage (VI): digital skills

12 July 2017

For many people, key aspects of daily life now take place online. Easy access to shopping has increased the online share of retail trade to over 15 per cent in 2015. More than half of the population now use the internet to access their bank account. Almost 60 per cent are subscribed to online social networks, including more than seven million people logging into Twitter daily, discussing everything from #MTVHottest to #Chilcot.

Increasing digitisation dominates policy discussions. A headline Reform recommendation earlier this year, to automate up to 250,000 public-sector jobs, was partly based on this increase in online activity. Successful digitisation, however, is dependent on rapidly increasing the digital skills of those who often need public services the most.

Although around 86 per cent of households have internet connections, the last 14 per cent are not distributed equally across demographic groups. Only 35 per cent of people above the age of 65 in the ‘social grade’ DE regularly accessed the internet in the last quarter of 2016. The ONS estimates that in 2016, only 71 per cent of people with a disability had recently used the internet, compared to 92.9 per cent of the rest of the population.

This is reflected in the digital skills people possess. In 2015, less than 50 per cent of people aged 65 or above had what is classified as basic digital skills. Above the age of 55, the factor most strongly explaining how likely people are to use the internet is age, followed by income.  When it comes to social grade classifications, only 57 per cent of any age in group DE had basic digital skills, compared to 90 per cent of AB members. By work status, 72 per cent of unemployed people had basic digital skills, compared to 89 per cent of those in employment. These differences are reflected geographically, with a 2016 survey showing that 22 per cent of adults in Blackburn had not used the internet in the past three months, compared to 7 per cent of adults in Surrey.

This lack of digital access and skills is problematic, not only because it excludes people from (“world-changing”) Twitter discussions. The groups most likely to be digitally excluded could benefit significantly from greater digital capability. Those with an annual income of £15,000 or less could save an average £516 a year if they became more digitally capable, and it is predicted that within 20 years, 90 per cent of jobs will require some element of digital skills.

An increase in skills would be advantageous to taxpayers too. A 2012 report on digital efficiency stated that for some government services the average cost of a digital transaction is 20 times lower than one over the phone, 30 times lower than a postal transaction and 50 times lower than a face-to-face transaction. The Department for Work and Pensions estimates that they will be able to save £140 million over the next ten years because of mergers and co-locations of job centres, made possible because 80 per cent of claims for Jobseeker’s Allowance and 99 per cent of Universal Credit applications are now made online.

Although digital skills may increase ‘organically’ as people become more used to online services, it is estimated that without action, 7.9 million people will still be digitally unskilled by 2025.The Government is aware of the need to consolidate digital skills throughout the population. The Digital Strategy published earlier this year identified the main barriers to digital inclusion, noting that in 2014-15, £85 million was spent to overcome them. Yet it says little about evaluating the impact of different interventions, or the extent to which they deliver value for money. To help the greatest number of people, in the most efficient way, evaluation must be embedded.

Increasing investment cannot overcome digital exclusion alone. According to the Chief Executive of the charity Go ON UK, any attempt must start by placing digital ability alongside literacy and numeracy as a core skill. She also argues that to target interventions in the best possible way, more knowledge is needed about exactly which skills are lacking, and where.

The Government must step up its efforts. Beyond showing that they are aware of the problem, and willing to invest in tackling it, they must understand how to channel their efforts most effectively. They must also embed digital skills in all areas of education and training. Like the ability to read and write, digital literacy must be seen as a basic skill for modern life.

Emilie Sundorph, Researcher, Reform

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